Understanding adult learners

Consider these concepts when facilitating, teaching or otherwise working with adults.

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think”

“Education is the kindling of the flame, not the filling of the vessel”

These quotes by Greek philosopher Socrates offer a message about learning, not so much how to learn but instead more about internal outcomes; providing the external stimuli that can intensify the learners internal processes for intellectual growth.

To be an effective facilitator, educator or leader it can be helpful to understand how adults learn, so as to ‘kindle the flame.’ Andragogy is the well-established theory, developed by Malcolm Knowles, that emphasizes adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for their learning.

Instructional Design, a website which provides information about instruction principles and how they relate to teaching and learning, states that Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning:

  1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something,
  2. Adults need to learn experientially,
  3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and
  4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

In practical terms, andragogy means that instruction for adults needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Strategies such as case studies, role playing, simulations, and self-evaluation are most useful. Instructors adopt a role of facilitator or resource rather than lecturer or grader.

In my early career with Michigan State University Extension, I had the privilege of taking several workshops taught by S. Joseph Levine about helping adults learn. Below are some recommendations Dr. Levine made to assist facilitators or instructors who work with adults.

Adults need to know why they need to learn something

  • Your goal is to help them learn what you are about to teach
  • Start by telling them what you are about to teach
  • Ask them to clarify what they will do better as a result of the class

Adults need to learn experientially

  • Provide opportunities for them to work together and share ideas/experiences
  • Try to do a lot more showing then telling – invite questions
  • Let them see the information being put to use and then have them try it

Adults approach learning as problem-solving

  • Don’t spend time telling information that can be given out ahead of time
  • Don’t assume you are the only one with the answers (the class is full of ideas)
  • Demonstrations and case studies are most effective when the learners are concerned with an issue or problem and are looking for an answer

Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value

  • Ask them what they want to do with the information being presented
  • Try to make the presentation problem-focused rather than information-focused
  • Allow the learners to add their own issues/concerns to what they want to get out of the class (review these before the end of the presentation)

Understanding the basic principles of adult learning can help the facilitator, educator or leader to be more successful by providing the external stimuli that can intensify the adult learner’s internal processes and intellectual growth. For further study, there are many fine articles and books available on this subject.

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